Access to knowledge paves a road to self-determination. In modern America and similar capitalistic systems, this becomes correlated with access to increased socio-economic status and increased influence over cultural evolution. Today, we’re going to talk about how the American education system endangers the lives of Black folks and does a disservice to white folks when it centers Whiteness in discussions of Civil Rights.
The Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education made it illegal to segregate public schools. However, our public schools remain highly segregated to this day, largely because our cities remain segregated. What’s more, the curricula are often spun from half-truths or outright lies when it comes to the foundational influence that Blacks have had on America. History books often romanticize slavery or downplay the role of the Civil Rights movement by focusing on only a few Black leaders during that time. STEM classes regularly favor the white contextualization of scientific progress. It’s rarely taught that Cassini and Huygens, after whom NASA space probes were named, also helped make calculations for the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. For more on that, you can check out the de-colonizing Science Reading List by astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein.
Schools can also easily become physically unsafe environments for people of color and other marginalized groups. The Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos has stalled the fight for civil rights in high schools. Police or security guards serving as rule-keepers in the classroom can escalate violent interactions — often perpetrated by the police themselves. Moreover, when students protest by kneeling for the anthem at a sports game, or refusing to stand for the pledge of allegiance, they are threatened with suspension or expulsion.
Whichever way you want to slice it, like Dead Prez said, this is ‘they school’, not ours.
The centering of white priorities and needs also reaches into the echelons of higher education, where colleges and universities continually make decisions that endanger the lives of Black students and staff. A case in point: last year on Inauguration Day, the University of Washington hosted a speech by white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos. The event prompted protests outside the event venue by students and locals upset to see hate speech take place on their campus. The confrontation culminated in a protestor being shot by one of the attendees of the Yiannopoulos event, resulting in life-threatening injury (the protestor survived, but faced extensive recovery following the shooting).
Events like these have been a flashpoint for numerous higher ed institutions: institutions must make the choice between hosting events that promulgate hate speech (and have concrete impacts on the safety of their students and staff) and appearing to oppose free speech and the exchange of ideas. Events like these also come in a variety of flavors: in some cases, white supremacists (e.g. Richard Spencer) rent space on college campuses to hold events, such that the event brings hate to the campus but is not formally there at the invitation of any campus group (although one might argue that accepting the money of a hate group is a form of invitation). Sometimes, though, the event takes place at the invitation of a campus group, meaning that one part of the community has invited elements in that threaten another part of the community. No matter how they got there, it stands for the institution to decide: do Black lives really matter to them?
This week, UW showed that even with last year’s campus shooting, they continue to support groups who place people of color in danger. You can read full eloquent summaries and analyses via these Twitter threads from two UW community members, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and Sarah Tuttle, but we will summarize here as well. A UW campus group, the College Republicans, invited a group called Patriot Prayer to hold a rally on the campus. Patriot Prayer is a right-wing extremist group, whose provocations in other cities have been written about by the Southern Poverty Law Center. As a result, several other events on campus, who felt rightfully endangered by the presence of hate groups, were forced to cancel their own events– including an event for high school students of color to visit the UW campus, learn about the community, and discuss their future educational options. The university administration, in response to learning from the UWPD that the rally would likely draw groups intent on inciting violence, issued a letter from the university president with a clear message: your safety is your problem, so if you want to be safe, stay home.
University of Washington is not alone. Richard Spencer spoke at Texas A&M University in December 2016, and is slated to speak at Michigan State University in March 2018. The University of Michigan is considering dates outside current academic semester for Spencer to visit and present. Finally, University of Chicago Professor Luigi Zingales has invited white nationalist Steve Bannon to speak on campus. Zingales then invited a Black political science professor to debate Bannon; She declined, saying that she “would never consider legitimizing such an event with my participation.”
In making decisions like these, universities often try to hide behind “free speech” to justify endangering their Black and brown community members. But whose speech is being protected? In sponsoring these events, institutions are effectively quashing the ability of Black and brown people to even access their space, essentially telling students (and in this case, the high schoolers who might be future students) that the trade they must make to access education is the safety of their bodies and minds. Behind all of this, of course, is money — beyond the fees that these events pay to access space, institutions know that many of their donors support the right wing devotion to free speech for white people that comes at the expense of Black and brown people. By refusing to take a stand that protects people of color, they make clear whose rights they do protect. One small light in all of this darkness is that not every institution of higher education makes the decision that UW has: last year, Ohio State University declined to host Richard Spencer on their campus, citing the threat to public safety.
Dear Black and brown high school students who might have visited UW this weekend: have you considered Ohio State? They have a great astronomy department.
Think about the importance of education in our world — in terms of knowledge of self and how that impacts self-determination. How can a country or its people truly determine its future if it does not, or can not, understand itself. What happens when you don’t equitably provide access to educational pathways?
What happens when school gets in the way of education for a people, for an entire nation?
In the video below, Blackstar (Talib Kweli and Mos Def) talks about the meaning of Knowledge of Self.